Most abductions end in the safe release of abductees. However, an abduction is by far the most complex and challenging category of crisis that an organisation can face, as it is an ongoing, active event that often involves a great deal of uncertainty and multiple stakeholders with sometimes conflicting priorities.
Note, the term “abduction” can cover various situations in which a person is forcibly taken and held against their will, including:
Detention: Individual is being held lawfully.
Kidnapping: Individual is being held unlawfully and a demand has been made.
Hostage-taking: Individual is being held unlawfully in a known location.
It is vital that organisations pre-identify more than one potential Communicator. Communicators are responsible for passing messages between the Crisis Management Team and the abductors, acting as a buffer. Communicators must be fluent in the predominant local language and require thorough briefing and management.
It is vital that all Communicators fully understand and accept that they are a messenger and therefore do not have any input in or control of the abduction negotiations.
Communicators must be capable of remaining calm and neutral and be resilient, as they may have to listen to threats or violence against abductees. Communicators may be placed in situations where they are required to inform abductors that their demands cannot be met, in scope or timing, and have to listen to the reaction.
Communicators must be patient. They will have little or no opportunity to do any practical task except sit and wait for the phone to ring – hence they should be resilient to stress. They must all be highly trusted and capable to treat all information and decisions in total confidence.
Actors with a vested interest in an abduction case can be numerous and diverse. It is important to understand and monitor their varying motives and concerns, especially as these may change during a crisis, or additional actors may emerge.
Depending on the duration of a crisis, stakeholders can become increasingly challenging to “manage”.
The extent to which host governments become actively involved in the management of an abduction incident naturally differs from country to country. Key factors determining the reaction of a host government may include national law and order infrastructure and enforcement capacity, the degree of political pressure exerted at the international level (by the UN, national governments of abductees or us) and domestic political considerations.
Whilst host governments can act as a valuable source of information, support and advice, their objectives may differ from those of the organisation involved (i.e. safe release of the abductees). This may lead to a lack of support or even hindrance of organisational efforts. Host governments may:
- Show greater interest in capturing abductors, thereby deterring future abductions and influencing outcomes.
- Wish to be perceived as remaining in control of law and order.
- Distrust an organisation’s crisis management capacity and/or resent the fact that an organisation “allowed” an abduction to occur in the first place.
- Wish to prevent organisations from interacting with “terrorists” or “rebels” for political reasons.
- Impose legislation prohibiting any or all forms of contact with abductors.
Particularly in high-threat countries, it is advisable for country offices to examine the host government’s reaction to and role in previous abduction cases and establish contact with relevant authorities and law enforcement agencies in advance to understand their likely strategies and response capabilities.
The involvement of the home government of the abductees also hinges on numerous factors. Some governments will pursue a highly proactive approach when their nationals are abducted abroad, while others will adopt a more passive stance if they are confident in the abduction management capacity of the organisation. Additionally, governments will have differing positions on the payment of ransom.
In such instances, the home government may still provide support on request. The home government’s confidence in the organisation concerned will be shaped in part by the abductee’s family. Where a family loses faith in an organisation’s crisis management capacity and strategy, for example, they may press a home government to assume leadership of the situation. Political relations with and strategic interests in the country concerned can also influence governmental attitudes and strategies.
Registration of international individuals with the respective embassies should be completed immediately on arrival to the country, as it likely facilitates co-operation with the embassy in case of an abduction. Countries that do not have any diplomatic representation in-country are usually represented by another nation’s embassy. Moreover, embassies are also often a good starting point for general information regarding which government departments to contact in the event of abduction.
Abduction negotiations require a high level of professional experience and skill. Thus, we may consider (and may be required by our insurance companies) to engage external support from professional response teams. Such services are provided by, among others, independent consultants, private security companies and insurance companies offering kidnap, ransom and extortion or crisis response insurance.
Important criteria for selecting external assistance are the company’s:
- Record and expertise in abduction case management and negotiations
- Availability for swift deployment
- Knowledge of the local context
- Expertise and capacity in media management.
The selected company should be required to maintain detailed records for post-incident review and potential auditing. It is, however, crucial that we retain overall responsibility and decision-making for the abduction management, even if external assistance is sought. Regardless of whether another actor takes a lead in the abduction management, we must always maintain full influence over decision-making to ensure that we maintain our Duty of Care.
Due to the nature of their mandate, the ICRC usually has a more extensive network, including senior-level contacts that could be leveraged.
Contact with relevant international and national NGOs should be sought. Some may have managed abduction incidents in the country before and may have learned about local networks and mechanisms for managing such incidents.
An independent charity that provides practical and emotional support to families during the kidnap of a loved one and to hostages who have returned home.4
The UN may be able to facilitate access to senior government officials. If UN peacekeepers or others with an armed protection mandate are present, they may well have direct oversight of national civil services, particularly anti-extortion units.
On a local level, community, political and religious leaders may be vital contacts in the management of an abduction incident. Other potentially useful contacts include businesspeople, armed opposition groups and organised criminal groups.
It is assumed that any information existing outside of the Crisis Management Teams will quickly reach the public domain. Communications will only be shared only after the approval of the Crisis Management Team’s Leads. Abduction management requires a high degree of confidentiality. If details of a case become public, the risk of opportunists attempting to exploit the situation, or of damaging leakages to the media, may be increased. The process of establishing and maintaining relationships of trust with perpetrators, family members and abductee’s home government may also be compromised.
Organisations should aim to limit all communication about abductions as much as possible. The Crisis Management Teams operates confidentially and communication to the wider organisation is strictly managed. However, there is a moral duty to update employees. Demands for the latest information can be distracting – employees will be genuinely concerned, yet their claim for more information can distract or paralyse efforts to secure the safe release of the abductees. To guard against this dynamic, internal communications should be delivered at an agreed and regular frequency and employees informed about a nominated internal contact (usually the Media/Comms or Human Resources role on the Crisis Management Team).
Increased public exposure may render it more difficult to control the crisis and potentially lead the abductors to make impossible demands. It is important to consider how, in different scenarios, the news of abduction may spread or can be controlled. It should be agreed who should be informed proactively (and how we will inform them). The timing and content of the information must be determined in consultation with and approved by the Crisis Management Team Leads. External contacts to consider communicating with include:
- Local and national authorities
- Foreign affairs departments and embassies
- Agencies (UN, ICRC, NGOs)
- Security networks (e.g. INSO, GISF, UNDSS)
- Media (national and international)
- Local communities and beneficiaries.
You should maintain a list of statements in anticipation of an abduction affecting employees. A key example statement is shown below. This statement should be pre-translated into the predominant languages of all country programmes with an abduction risk rated (by an external risk portal) as either HIGH or VERY HIGH. In the event of any incident, limited time will be available to prepare accurate translations, for example, if the news of abduction is in the media before you hear about it from other sources.
We confirm that an employee has been abducted in [insert name of country]. In the interests of their safety, we are not able to comment further at this stage. We are in close contact with their family and are working closely to ensure that everything possible is being done to bring about their safe return.
You should not normally issue any other specific details regarding abductions. However, there may be exceptional circumstances (e.g. when the family or a government has already gone public), in which case you may react differently and make the abduction highly visible in public media.
The role of the Media/Comms role on the Crisis Management Team is to present a positive message about your organisation, emphasising your neutrality and impact in the hope that this may encourage people aware of the abduction to assist you and present information or support leading to a positive outcome. The Media/Comms role will also monitor media coverage, especially if media are in contact with the abductors. The Media/Comms role will also correct any dis/misinformation or negative information that might damage our ability to handle the crisis.
In addition to internal and external communications, other more sensitive communication dictates a confidential and reliable means, both technically and in the management of communications, including:
- Dedicated, secure (satellite) phones and voice recorders
- Use of codes
- Translation (e.g., who will translate sensitive calls).
In addition to the clear psychological impact on the abductees and their families, the impact on colleagues and the Crisis Management Team can be considerable in abduction cases. Thus, you should seek to help these Individuals with psychological support.
You might suspend a country’s activities when abduction occurs. However, this may not be a permanently sustainable situation. Therefore, prior to making any programme decisions, the Crisis Management Teams should consider the following.
Does suspension or continuation of activities increase the possibility of opening communication channels with the abductors? What are the implications of suspension or continuation of the activities regarding community support?
What are the implications of the abduction for the risk assessment of the country programme?
The crisis will likely require the full-time attention of some of the Crisis Management Team members. Which programme activities can be continued with the remaining management capacity?
It is suggested that in the initial reaction to a (suspected) abduction, decisions beyond suspension are avoided except those necessary to ensure the immediate safety of remaining employees. Until further details emerge, and we can reasonably judge what threat exists towards remaining employees, they should be placed in the most secure situation that can be immediately achieved (e.g. hibernation). It should be noted that continuation or the partial continuation of activities may be either positive or negative factors for our negotiations with abductors.
The following organisations provide useful resources:
- Global Interagency Security Forum (GISF):
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